History of Hymns: 'Koinonia'
By C. Michael Hawn
by V. Michael McKay
Africana Hymnal, 4099
Zion Still Sings, 89
How can I say that I love the Lord who I’ve never ever seen before,
And forget to say that I love the one who I walk beside each and every day.
How can I look upon your face and ignore God's love, you I must embrace.
You’re my brother, you’re my sister,
and I love you with the love of the Lord.*
*© Schaff Music Publishing. Used by permission. All rights reserved.
V. Michael McKay (b. 1952) is one of the most enduring gospel song composers and artists of his generation. He recorded his first song, “Wait Till the Morning Comes,” in 1976. Since that time, his ministry has extended for more than four decades. His passion is to combine biblically based texts with a contemporary musical idiom that encourages congregational participation throughout worship (Hawn, 1995, pp. 90-91). Rather than writing songs for the performer’s stage, Michael sees his songs as “extensions of the Word which was proclaimed and then sung, with the composer at the crossroads causing the Word to continue by the work of God's Spirit” (McKay, 2002, p. 66).
Michael McKay’s mentor is Margaret Pleasants Douroux (b. 1943), composer of the well-known “Give Me a Clean Heart” (The Faith We Sing, 2133), based on Psalm 51. Ms. Douroux is one of the legends of gospel music. Upon meeting McKay in 1971, she challenged him to compose and publish music. Her theology of music has had a profound influence on Michael’s compositions. She notes the difference between performance and the worship song:
In this contemporary age, the new composer may be tempted to write for the audience, for the pastor, or even for notoriety. In reality, these objectives may be appropriate in some assignments, but never in the worship song. The worship song must speak in its conviction, it must be honest in its representation, it must preach of the coming Messiah, and it must not compromise (McKay, 2002, p. 65).
“Koinonia” (1997) came about in the following way:
I was asked by the pastor to prepare music for a college prep day for high school students. In preparation for the Saturday morning event, I wrote Koinonia the Friday night prior and taught it to the students the next morning, thinking it would be a great way to engage them. The overwhelming effect of the song prompted me to teach it to the church during multiple services the next day. The rest is history. (Email to author June 4, 2020.)
The song embodies the twin commandments—love God and love your neighbor—found in each of the synoptic gospels (Matthew 22:36-40; Mark 12:28-31; Luke 10:27). “Koinonia” (κοινωνία) is the transliteration of a Greek term arising out of the early Christian community that identifies the abiding fellowship and unity of Christians as members of the body of Christ. The depth of this fellowship is rooted in the understanding that as baptized believers, we have all become children of God—siblings of our common parent. Christians sometimes fall into the practice of vying for our parents’ attention, leading to strife and struggle among one another. The body of Christ does not attain true koinonia unless God’s love as manifest in us is also recognized in one another.
The composer captures this truth by beginning with rhetorical questions in the first-person singular—“How can I say. . .”. He bases these questions on 1 John 4:20, paraphrased as follows: “How can we do this? We say we love the Lord, one we’ve never seen, but do not express love for those closest to us.”
As with a good sermon, the composer restates the question again (a tautology) in case the singers missed it the first time, but this time in reverse order: “How can I look at my neighbor with love, but then ignore God’s love?” The biblical truth is clear; the theological logic is sound; and the answer to the questions is obvious—my love is not true koinonia unless I extend God’s love to my neighbor—to my siblings—my brothers and sisters in Christ. Only the “love of the Lord” can empower us to love our spiritual family members truly.
In the history of Christian worship, this worship song functions as a communal greeting near the beginning of worship or as a sung passing of the peace—a time of reconciliation before receiving Communion, when God’s love for us in Christ is visible in a shared meal at the table. This intimate family meal is an expression of the fellowship, sharing, and participation of the body of Christ's members.
The music of “Koinonia” follows the natural rhythms of the words and lies in a comfortable range for congregational singing. Harmonic progressions are traditional yet innovative. The relaxed 9/8 musical meter is similar to the compound meter used in the black gospel tradition when adapting white gospel songs to the black community. Songs, especially gospel hymns, originally composed in 3/4 or 4/4 in the white community are often performed in 9/8 and 12/8 meters, respectively, in African American worship. African American musicologist Horace Clarence Boyer traces this “gospel waltz” feeling to National Baptist Convention legend Lucie Eddie Campbell-Williams (1885-1963) [Boyer, 1992, pp. 102-103]. This style is captured in the recording by Emory University professor James Abbington to accompany the African American Heritage Hymnal (2001). See https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=U0Wr6GPl1o8.
V. Michael McKay grew up in Alexandria, Louisiana, where his grandfather was a Baptist preacher. His grandmother sang hymns to him at home and while riding in the car, embedding in him a love for the people's song at an early age. It was out of this experience that God chose the path of composition and music making as his life’s work (Defender, 2018, n.p.). He named his publishing company, Schaff Music Publishing, after his grandfather, Rev. Wilmer Schaff Washington (Hymns for Him Now, n.d., n.p.).
Michael conducts church music workshops and seminars. In addition, he has served as a minister of music and taught adjunctively on the college level. He is especially known as a mentor to aspiring composers and musicians through his Songwriters’ Ink and Hymns for Him Now conferences. He studied music at Southern University (Baton Rouge, Louisiana) and Texas Southern University (Houston, Texas) and resides in Houston. He served as musician-in-residence at Brookhollow Baptist Church (Houston) from 1988–99 and 2013–16. Michael’s honors include two Dove Awards (1991, 1992) for the Traditional Black Gospel Song of the Year and the 1993 SEASAC Top Song Writer of the Year Award. He was inducted into the Gospel Music Hall of Fame in 2000. His songs have been recorded by several national artists, including Yolanda Adams, Brian Courtney Wilson, Daryl Coley, Tramaine Hawkins, Byron Cage, Micah Stampley, Dorothy Norwood, Shirley Caesar, and Albertina Walker (Hymns for Him Now, n.d., n.p.).
Michael promotes of the music of others through his radio show, “Truth,” which airs on Sunday evenings on KTSU-Radio in Houston. Also, he has hosted the Salute to Houston Gospel Music Legends for KTSU-Radio, the goal of which is to “trace the legacy of gospel music in the city of Houston” and celebrate the music of Houston’s gospel artists (Defender, 2018, n.p.). He describes his most recent venture:
In August 2019, I partnered with Yolanda Adams and initiated preparation for writing/compiling a Hymnbook of African American Composers through an event called, V. Michael McKay’s Hymns For Him Now. In an effort to further preserve the songs of composers whose stories are unique to their culture, yet relevant to all believers in the Christian culture, we gathered to plan, prepare, strategize, and document stories and songs for educational and inspirational purposes. (Email to author, June 4, 2020.)
Horace Clarence Boyer, How Sweet the Sound: The Golden Age of Gospel (Washington, D.C.: Elliott & Clark Publishing, 1995).
Defender News Service, “V. Michael McKay: Celebrating Houston Gospel Music Legends” (October 4, 2018), https://defendernetwork.com/entertainment/v-michael-mckay-celebrating-houston-gospel-music-legends, (accessed June 4, 2020).
C. Michael Hawn, ed., For the Living of These Days: Resources for Enriching Worship (Macon, GA: Smyth & Helwys, 1995).
V. Michael McKay, Gospel Legends—“V. Michael McKay Interview” (May 12, 2014), https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5p3R_GbDhDM (accessed June 4, 2020).
_____, Hymns for Him Now, https://www.hymnsforhimnow.com (accessed June 4, 2020).
_____, To Tell the Truth (Chicago: GIA Publications, 2002).
C. Michael Hawn, D.M.A., F.H.S., is University Distinguished Professor Emeritus of Church Music and Adjunct Professor, and Director, Doctor of Pastoral Music Program at Perkins School of Theology, Southern Methodist University.